Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Holy Socks

I haven’t been blogging much lately, being too busy with other things that someday might lead to something more lucrative than blogging – which is to say, anything other than blogging. We can always hope.

Now that it’s Christmastime, the season when many people entertain at home, I’m reminded of one of the lesser-known customs of the Finns. Soon after coming to live here, I learned that before leaving the house to visit friends you should always check your socks for holes.

Reinos - classic Finnish footwear.
The reason for this extra attention to hosiery is that Finns, as a rule, do not wear shoes indoors at home. That goes as well for guests, and having a hole in your sock is something you can’t easily hide. Holes in both socks are even worse.

I’m not sure if this custom is shared by other Nordic countries, though I imagine it might be. In the case of Finland, it’s probably due to the Finns’ obsession with cleanliness and good housekeeping. Plus the fact that for at least some good portion of the year, the world outside the front door is a vast sea of mud, or muddy slush, or slushy mud. You get the picture.

So, good manners dictate that in addition to bringing a bottle of red or white, guests should avoid tracking unwelcome grime into the house by leaving their shoes in the eteinen (small entryway) when they arrive.

The more fashionably conscious guests, usually women and especially those of a certain age, often work around this shoeless custom by bringing along a pair of dress shoes to change into once they’re inside.

This particular Finnish habit is so ingrained that whenever my children visited my parents in Georgia, they always immediately removed their shoes and left them in a neat row by the front door, a practice that always impressed my mother.

The shoeless custom is also why the only bones I’ve ever broken have been toe bones. Walk around the house long enough in socking feet, and you’re bound to bang your toe pretty hard against something. Repeatedly. Maybe that’s why a few years ago I adopted another local tradition – the Reino. These are the legendary beige-colored plaid slippers that some Finns do wear at home. Reinos have a certain retro appeal that has made them très chic in the last few years. Or maybe that’s just what those of us who wear them would like to think.

While the custom of going shoeless indoors seems completely sensible in this climate, it can lead to awkward situations. Years ago, I attended an epic Friday-night party at a colleague’s small apartment downtown. He threw great parties, and soon the eteinen was overflowing with shoes. Some details of that night are best not dwelt upon, but by Monday morning I had fully recovered and was dressing for work when I noticed one of my shoes felt different, very roomy. It was identical to the other, only a size or two bigger.

Obviously, leaving the party with my facilities somewhat blunted by judicious servings of alcohol, I had picked up someone else’s shoe from the pile. When I arrived at the office, ready to exchange footwear with my colleague, I found that over the weekend he had left for a weeklong business trip to Singapore, obviously with one shoe that was too tight. When he arrived back in Finland, he was still not too happy, but it did make a great story.

At dinner in a restaurant (where even Finns wear shoes) a few months later, I enjoyed retelling the story to some female colleagues visiting from Dallas. At first, I didn’t understand why a story about a shoe mix-up that I thought was quite funny was met with such awkward, concerned looks from my Texan friends. Then I realized they were trying to work out exactly what kind of party this had been anyway, where guests can mistakenly go home with the wrong article of clothing.

I had neglected to mention the key piece of information that people living here take completely for granted – no partygoer should ever be shy about stripping off their shoes. Unless they have hole-ly socks.